FAYETTEVILLE - Fayetteville was the locale but Little Rock the most inquired topic during and after Arkansas Razorbacks Athletic Director Jeff Long addressed Wednesday’s meeting of the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club at Mermaid’s Restaurant.
Ever since Razorback Stadium became the expanded to 72,000-seat Reynolds Razorback Stadium at the UA campus in Fayetteville, debate has transpired about the merits of the Razorbacks continuing also to play at 55,000 seat War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
Formerly hosting more Arkansas games per season than Fayetteville, War Memorial Stadium since 2014 has dwindled to hosting just one Razorbacks game per season with its contract with the UA expiring after 2018.
The Razorbacks, with a further expansion behind the north end zone at Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium to be completed before the 2018 season, did not sell out War Memorial in their last SEC game there, a 45-32 loss to Georgia in 2014, and only drew an announced 36,055 for last Thursday night’s 49-7 season opening victory over Florida A&M.
Even before drawing just 36,055 there has been published speculation that the UA might even buy out the 2018 contract with War Memorial, which does call for a SEC game there in 2018.
"You know I heard the reports as you did that we were considering buying out," Long said, answering media questions after his address. "And I'll just be as honest as I can be … has someone said that that's an option? Yeah, probably. Has there been, let me be very clear, has there been any substantive conversation about buying out? Absolutely none that I've been engaged in. So I can speak for myself there. I've not been engaged in any conversations to buy out of the game in Little Rock. We believe in honoring the contract. We have a contract to play an SEC game in '18 - I fully intend to honor that contract."
That said, Long said he was "disappointed" with last Thursday’s attendance.
"We had hoped for more, obviously," Long said. "The crowd gives the team energy and excitement. It lifts the team. So yeah, you know, I hope people aren't going to be upset with me when I say 'disappointed.' We were disappointed there weren't more fans. We thought that moving the game to Thursday night would create an energy opening night of college football. Create a little more juice to the game against an FCS opponent. I'm certain weather (rain had been forecast but ceased before kickoff) played a factor in that. There's a lot of factors that go into the result of the attendance at that game and I think weather was a big part of it."
Playing Thursday rather than Saturday likely was a factor, too, especially with the War Memorial tradition of tailgating on the golf course curtailed by many since it was was work day.
However not selling out for the Georgia game factors, Long acknowledged.
The Razorbacks exceeded Thursday’s crowd but also did not sell out in their 2015 and 2016 Little Rock games, an upset loss against Toledo and last season’s victory over Alcorn State, also a lower division team like Florida A&M.
"We look at all the games we've had there and we evaluate that," Long said.
There was criticism in 2014 that the Georgia ticket was higher priced than Arkansas’ SEC games in Fayetteville but that doesn’t apply now, Long said.
"We've lowered the price of tickets in Little Rock as well," Long said. "So they're not the same price. They're $35 and $45 in LR now. And here (Fayetteville) single games are $45 and $65. We've done some things to encourage attendance in LR. Certainly attendance is a piece. Not the only piece."
Statewide unity has been a focal point of the Razorbacks and except for Northwest Arkansas to the River Valley in Fort Smith, Little Rock is a shorter drive for fans to see the Razorbacks play.
Are there realistic ways those wanting to keep games in Little Rock can state their case?
"Yes, yes, yes," Long said. "There are lots of people suggesting lots of things. Look, that’s to be expected. It’s a passionate state. The Razorbacks are important to this state. There’s a history and tradition. I’m not surprised by people wanting games to remain. I’m not surprised by those who feel all the games should be in Fayetteville. The one thing I hope, I hope it doesn’t turn into a stadium debate. I hope we don’t turn it into a statewide debate or referendum."
Long said the decision on the Razorbacks’ future in Little Rock must come soon because of scheduling but that his part will be a recommendation and not the final decision.
"I'm a chain of command person," Long told the NWA Touchdown Club citing Joe Steinmetz, Chancellor of the UA’s Fayetteville campus, UA System President Don Bobbitt and the UA Board of Trustees as his superiors.. "I deal with the chancellor (Joe Steinmetz) at the University of Arkansas on a weekly, daily, hourly basis. I'm not a guy who steps out there and says, ‘I’m in control.’ It's more than the AD (athletic director). We are part of the university. We are not the most important thing at the university."